Well-known Irish playwright Thomas Kilroy adapted Chekhov's bittersweet meditation in 1981, transforming the hapless, lovelorn Russians into unsettled Anglo-Irish aristocrats facing similar problems in the mid-1880s.
The Culture Project's vivid, humorous revival, which opened off-Broadway on Sunday night, is handsomely staged by Max Stafford-Clark, who commissioned and directed the original production at the Royal Court Theatre in London.
Kilroy's adaptation freshly illuminates Chekhov's ambiguities and views on the fundamental common factors in human unhappiness, finding similarities between Irish colonial history under British rule and Chekhov's helpless Russian aristocrats watching their way of life disappear.
Trudie Styler is elegantly cold as Isobel Desmond, a jealous, narcissistic actress who ignores her unstable, depressed son, Constantine, when not trampling all over his feelings. Styler, a former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, is making her New York theater debut, with a strong supporting cast surrounding her commanding performance.
Slate Holmgren gives would-be writer Constantine a broody, self-pitying air as he pines for young local beauty, Lily, and whines about his life. The seagull he shoots in a fit of melancholy rage might be a metaphor for the artistic freedom he cannot achieve, or it might represent the unattainable Lily (sensitively portrayed by Rachel Spencer Hewitt).
Lily becomes unfortunately smitten with Isobel's current paramour, self-absorbed writer Aston (Alan Cox, amusingly whimsical and likable) with tragic consequences.
Amanda Quaid is dourly funny as a depressed young woman who complains, in one of Kilroy's many colorful lines, that her life is "an old gown dragging behind me." Rufus Collins gives Dr. Hickey a reassuring presence, while Kenneth Ryan is charming as Isobel's elderly brother Peter. Ryan David O'Byrne is delightfully obsequious as a constantly-flustered, poor schoolteacher, and Stella Feehily and Tim Ruddy round out the cast as an unhappily-married couple who take care of Peter and his property.
Despite comparing herself to the dead bird, Lily has the courage to cope with tragedy and face an uncertain future. Hewitt is strikingly transformed in the second act, when now-disgraced Lily bravely tells Constantine, "What matters is being able to go on with some small dignity within oneself."